An uncontested fact in local politics is that women are an extremely underrepresented group. For making up a significant part of the population, they only occupy around 15% of the seats in Parliament, making women in Malta one of the most inadequately represented in the EU, second only to Hungary.
Little progress has actually been made to fix this, with the number of female MPs remaining close to constant for the past decade.
Corrective mechanisms have been proposed, the most current and most ambitious of which is the ‘Gender Balance in Parliament Reform’. This reform, among other things, aims to;
- State fund political parties to support their endeavour to address the current under-representation of women
- Extends remits for the Electoral Commission, entrusted to carry out a gender audit of political parties
- Add 12 additional seats to achieve as much as possible the 40% threshold
- Calls for a ‘Gender Equality Strategic Plan’ for the House of Representatives, a plan that would introduce more family-friendly measure and “a full-time position on a voluntary basis and the availability of child-care services”
The proposal also sets a sunset clause, where these mechanisms are disbanded once 40% of Parliament is made up of female MPs, and sets a time limit of 20 years if the gender deficit remains. Gender neutral individuals shall also be counted with the underrepresented gender.
The reform argues that gender quotas are relevant to our country’s situation, with them being required to compensate for structural discrimination, “Gender quotas do not discriminate. Rather, they compensate for existing barriers that hinder women from receiving their fair share of political seats preventing further barriers and mechanisms of exclusion.”.
It continues to read that, “Gender quotas do not discriminate against individual men. Rather, quota rules limit the tendency of political parties to nominate mostly men and compel them to seek out active and competent female candidates. For the voters, the opportunities are expanded with the possibility to vote for parties with women candidates.”.
Still, this proposal has proven very controversial, with people from all backgrounds, age, and sex, either praising or criticising it.
What makes it so controversial?
Proponents see this proposal as a ‘necessary evil’, with the need to ensure that such a large portion of the population has the adequate representation in parliament.
Opponents, on the other hand, state that although it is of extreme importance that Malta has more women in parliament, subjecting them to quotas is degrading to their genuine merits and will subject the members of parliament who get their seat through this bill to be attacked by the media and male politicians who not manage to enter parliament for ‘not being deserving of their position’. This reform would not change any root causes of the issue, but only inflate the female representation in parliament in an artificial manner.
KNŻ, Malta’s National Youth Council, wrote that “While giving a seat to women on the premise of their gender may diminish the gap in numbers, this will not do much to change the mentality of the voter and encourage them to focus on the competence of candidates when casting the vote, rather than their gender”.
Rather than quotas, they propose that we should focus on encouraging more people, especially female individuals, to contest for parliament, and to educate the voters on their selection of preferred candidates, to make it more based on an individual’s merit and ideals rather than their gender.
Independent candidate Arnold Cassola sees this law as the big parties continuing to push laws to widen their reach even further, calling it the “biggest electoral fraud”, where “If a PL or PN woman candidate gets 200 votes she will be co-opted, but if a third party or Independent woman candidate gets 400 votes, she will not be elected.” Rather than an equality law, it can be seen as “benefitting PN and PL women at the expense of Maltese women.”
Legal experts have also voiced their concern on this reform, with it being seen as ‘smokescreen’ for increased funding of political parties through state funds, with little to no auditing of such funds being mentioned in the bill. Dr. Claire Bonello states that “If introduced in a piecemeal fashion, it risks becoming exorbitant, unnecessarily complex, and discriminating in the levels of funding awarded across the various political groups”.
The government has rejected this claim, with the response from this public consultation promising that “The funds allocated may be further scrutinized by the National Audit Office”.
Moviment Graffiti is taking another approach, with the organisation calling for the quotas to be introduced in the election candidate list rather than directly in parliament. This way, it would fall on the parties to ensure that the percentage of female MPs increases and would answer Cassola’s previously mentioned issue with the bill. This way, they argued, the process would be much more democratic, and the major parties would not consolidate even more power in parliament.
We released a poll last Friday to get an insight on what the general public thinks of this bill. The overwhelming majority, around 80%, voted that they are against the Gender Quota bill, with some notable comments listed below;
This bill, if passed, can go either way. Countries like Ireland and Bolivia have passed similar quotas and which have been extremely successful to increase female representation. On the other hand, countries like Brazil, who tried to introduced gender quotas, are still plagued by a minuscule portion of parliament being female thanks to loopholes present in their legislation.
Whatever happens, we must ensure that women do not become tokenised in parliament or be seen by the parties as a buffer for more possible votes in parliament. Care must also be given to combat stereotypes regarding women in leadership roles. If this Gender Corrective Mechanism is passed, it definitely needs to be accompanied with more programs to introduce more women to politics rather than just pushing what small percentage of female MPs we have through.
Written by: Nathan Portelli